Having become a UNESCO City of Literature in 2004, Edinburgh was the very first city to join the programme. Scottish literature has a centuries-old tradition, and Edinburgh has been at its heart. In particular, Edinburgh was a hub for English-language Enlightenment literature in the 19th century. Without a doubt, the most important Scottish writer was Sir Walter Scott, best known for his 1820 romantic historical novel Ivanhoe. Other greats include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of novels about Sherlock Holmes, which are considered to have pioneered modern detective fiction; and Robert Louis Stevenson, author of such canonical adventure stories like Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which have sparked numerous film adaptations and even a video game. J. M. Barrie, author of the beloved children’s play Peter Pan, studied at the University of Edinburgh.
Edinburgh’s literary heritage is not only limited to the world of fiction. One of the most important Enlightenment philosophers, David Hume, lived there, as did Adam Smith, the father of economics. Meanwhile, Charles Darwin studied at the University of Edinburgh.
Among more recent writers, the most influential Edinburgh resident is Irvine Welsh, one of the pioneers of the cyberpunk genre, best known for his bestseller Trainspotting, which chronicles the lives of lower-class Scottish heroin addicts, and other successful novels such as Porno, Filth and Glue. Welsh’s occasional use of Urban Scots in his books makes them quite a challenging read for the layman. Meanwhile, British writer J. K. Rowling began writing her Harry Potter series, a blockbuster in the field of British literature, in an Edinburgh coffee shop.
The home of many music, film and literary festivals as well as museums and concert halls, Edinburgh is without a doubt one of the leading cultural capitals and creative industry centres in the United Kingdom.
The Scottish capital offers many events for book lovers. The Edinburgh International Book Festival claims to be the largest in the world. Each year, it features over 700 events. Countless other smaller-scale literary events are organised there year-round. Other book festivals that Edinburgh offers include: the Independent and Radical Book Fair, which is devoted to alternative literature; the Edinburgh Book Fringe, an opportunity to attend discussions with writers and activists as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, one of the world’s biggest art festivals; the Portobello Book Festival, which offers book readings and literary events by the seaside; and the Duddingston Festival, whose programme features poetry readings and lectures. Meanwhile, readers can take part in the Jekyll & Hyde walk, which revisits the places that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale, every Monday. Book Week Scotland for Readers and Writers is great for all age groups of readers.
In order to mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, the first historical novel, as well as the 10th anniversary of Edinburgh’s inauguration into the UNESCO City of Literature programme, the Great Scott! campaign was launched. This consisted of placing quotes from Scott’s literature across the city and giving his books out for free.
Perhaps the most famous literary prize originating in Edinburgh is the First Book Award, which is awarded for literary debuts by readers. Its granting is part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Meanwhile, the James Tait Black Prize, founded in 1919, is Britain’s oldest literary prize. It is given for the best work of fiction and best biography published in the previous year. Meanwhile, the Saltire Society Literature Awards are considered to be the greatest distinctions for Scottish literature.
In the 19th century, printing and publishing were among the key industries driving Edinburgh’s economy. Although it is currently located in London, Chambers Harrap, originally founded in Edinburgh in 1819, is a pioneer of Britain’s publishing industry. Today, the most influential Scottish publisher is Canongate, whose success began in 2001 with its publication of Life of Pi. Since then, it has published bestsellers by Philip Pullman, Margaret Atwood, and others. Luath Press publishes a variety of genres, from poetry to travel guides. The University of Edinburgh Press is a leading academic publisher. Meanwhile, the Scottish capital has many independent publishers, including Fledgling Press, committed to promoting young literary talent.
The first Edinburgh library was opened in 1725. Since then, libraries have become a crucial part of the city’s cultural life. The National Library of Scotland is one of Europe’s leading research libraries and features many precious manuscripts related to Scottish literature. Book-related events are frequently organised there. Fans of poetry will appreciate the Scottish Poetry Library, the world’s first library solely devoted to poetry. Finally, the City of Edinburgh Council Libraries feature many events year-round for all age and age groups – including those for children, senior citizens and persons with disabilities – as well as archives and special collections.
Edinburgh is also a city rich in bookstores, 52 to be exact. Readers can download an iPhone app that provides them with a map of all of Edinburgh’s bookshops. Some classics include: the Edinburgh Bookshop, with a book collection exceeding 4,000; Edinburgh Books, the city’s largest used book store; Till’s Bookshop, another used bookstore, known for its large collection of fantasy and science fiction offerings; Elvis Shakespeare; and Armchair Books. Literary events are regularly organised at these and other Edinburgh bookstores. Meanwhile, comic book fans will appreciate Deadhead Comics. Check out this link and this one to learn more. Visitors to the Scottish capital can download the Edinburgh Bookshops Trail app, which is a map of the city’s bookstores.
The City of Literature Trust – Literary Tourism Innovation Fund was launched in 2014. Both private and public organisations may apply for monetary assistance as well as support in developing ideas related to literary tourism.
With regards to public literacy programmes, the City of Edinburgh Council Libraries’ program to boost confident reading is worth noting. The Scottish Book Trust offers a programme for schools that boosts creative writing skills among young people through mentorship. The University of Edinburgh also features creative writing programmes and offers awards for both undergraduate and post-graduate aspiring writers. Edinburgh’s City Council also has an Integrated Literacy Strategy.
Copyright Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust. Pic. Chris Scott